Of course, any studio chimp can recreate sounds, but it takes a true student of style to absorb those decades-old lessons and translate them into something as original as a fingerprint and as contemporary as tomorrow's software upgrade. From the outset, the New Porns have possessed the rare ability to make an immediate impression and a lasting impact, proving that Newman's sugarbuzz songs (and Dan Bejar's more pungent contributions) have the staying power of their Hall of Fame brethren. The New Porns' first three albums were marvels of Pop constructionism, with layers of anthemic guitars, insistently blipping synths and vocal harmonies from the big book of Pop grandeur. On Challengers, the Porns retain the scuffed melancholia of Twin Cinema and continue to dial back the breakneck freneticism of the first two albums while reconfiguring their sonic profile to feature less volume and more emotional intensity. By lessening their reliance on synthetics and bulking up with real instruments and strings, Challengers is more organic and accessible than any previous New Porns album.
There are flashes of the old Porns, particularly on "All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth," where the band channels their manic inner Sparks into a three-minute rush of Pop adrenaline. But then there's the Smiths-as-Shondells-tribute-band quiver of "Failsafe" and the Baroque Pop expanse of Newman's epic operetta "Go Places," a showpiece for Pop chanteuse Neko Case, especially when she croons with passionate conviction, "A heart should always go a step too far." In that one turned phrase lies the secret of Newman's success with the New Pornographers -- he's never been afraid to let his musical heart go a step (or three) too far and he's yet to make a weak album as a result. (Brian Baker) Grade: A